[Content Warning: rape, trauma]
Trauma is a beast that always lingers in the shadows, lurking and waiting to ponce. We learn to live with the monster in the closet, always feeling it’s presence but never quite laying eyes on it. It follows us wherever we go, like a snake trailing undertow. A constant companion that was never asked for nor wanted. Eventually, we learn to live with it to the point where we can even forget its presence for a time. Yet, always, it lurks, waiting to attack.
This past weekend was full of new experiences. Most notably was the date I had on Monday. Not only was it a first date, but it was my first true exploration into polyamory. The date was with a guy I’ve been friends with for months and we had recently realized that our relationship was something more than friendship (See my post about our queerplatonic relationship). We decided to see where this would lead and try going on a date.
So it was that he picked me up from my house on Monday, after spending the weekend both nervous and looking forward to things, to take me to an art museum. We said our farewells to my husband and we were on our way. As we drove, he held my hand and had kissed me once we were in the car. We got to the museum to find it far busier than we would have expected but decided to forge ahead.
Once inside, we discovered that the art was all modern art, though to me, much of it looked like randomness that someone slapped a label on. We spent our time walking through the museum and snickering at the piles of dirt (yes, literally just piles of dirt on the ground labeled “art”). We had a great time finding amusement throughout the museum while getting plenty of dirty looks for not being reverent enough.
After we left the museum, we went back to his car to figure out what to do next. While sitting in his car, we started holding hands and kissing. He then asked respectfully if he could touch my breast. Before I could register my discomfort, I felt my mouth form the word yes and he was touching me. I was incredibly uncomfortable and ended it quickly. We then settled on going to grab some coffee and proceeded from there. The rest of the date went well. We chatted over coffee (well, he had coffee and I had a coke) then went back to my place to hang out with my husband and our best friend which was very entertaining.
Overall, it was a great date, but after it ended, I felt off. My head was swirling with thoughts I couldn’t pin down and I was a mess of emotions I couldn’t identify. It wasn’t until the next day that I started to piece together what was wrong. As I thought about things again and again, I remembered my discomfort when being touched. Suddenly, the swirling mess began to grow clear.
I spent half a decade in relationships that were mentally and emotionally abusive with two of those years spent in a relationship that was also sexually abusive. As many abuse survivors will understand, when a great deal of time is spent in abusive situations, certain mindsets take hold for protection. We learn to respond in ways that will cause the least bad effects for us. We learn to go along with things because resisting can be dangerous.
When Ludo asked for consent, my mind jumped back to other times with other men in other cars and abuse mentality took over. A yes flew out my face without my consent. While it was something I really wasn’t comfortable doing, abuse brain took over and said yes. This may not make much sense to someone who hasn’t been in an abusive relationship, but when in an abusive relationship, sometimes saying yes to things you don’t want to do is a way of maintaining a semblance of power. In those relationships, yes or no, the action is likely to happen so at least if you said yes you can feel more in control of what is happening. You can even delude yourself into thinking you did want it.
Once I came to this realization, my mind started racing through all the times in abusive relationships when I agreed to things I didn’t want to. All the instances that otherwise would be considered rape, but because I said yes, despite not wanting to, it’s not. All the old feelings of shame, guilt, filthiness, pain, and fear came rushing back.
For the past couple days, ever since the date, I’ve been having flashbacks and panic attacks. The flashbacks are particularly troublesome because I’m aphantasic; I can’t see images in my mind typically. Yet when I have a flashback, images race through my mind too fast for me to grab hold of or make sense of. Once the flashback is over, the terror and pain remains, but I can’t remember what I saw. It’s very frustrating to feel these effects but not be able to say why.
Further, as part of my autism, I’m alexthymic and as such have difficulty identifying and processing my emotions. For the past couple days, I’ve been struggling to understand the mess inside of me. I know they’re bad emotions, but most of the time that’s as far as I can get. My wonderful husband has been helping me process things and identify what I’m feeling and why.
I’m ashamed of saying yes. I feel that I should have been able to assert myself better. I should have been able to say what I meant. Never mind that I often go nonverbal or partially verbal in stressful situations. Despite this, despite knowing why something like this would happen and knowing logically that it’s not my fault, I still feel like I should have done better. I should have been able to say no. It’s also terrifying because, while this time was with a trusted friend who would stop things if I gave any sign I wasn’t ok, what if I find myself in a situation in the future when I need to say no but can’t? What if I find myself being taken advantage of but have gone nonverbal and can’t say anything, let alone no.
I hurt to my very core. All the old pain has come rushing back. The pain of having my body stolen from me. The pain of being blamed for it. The pain of blaming myself for it. The pain of being disgusted with myself. So much pain, such big pain, now back anew with each old memory resurfaced. I want to cry endlessly as I did when it first happened. I want to hide away from the world never to return.
I feel guilty. Guilty for all the times I didn’t say no. Guilty for hurting Ludo. Guilty for being stuck in all of this. I feel so much guilt and shame that has resurfaced after all these years.
Most of all, however, I’m frustrated and ashamed. I feel like I just took a huge step backwards in my recovery. I feel like I had been doing so well and then one little thing set off this huge torrent of emotion and memory. I feel like such a mess right now. It’s been days since the date, yet I’m still caught in this PTSD mess. I feel like I should be doing better by now.
Yet, despite the swirling mass of emotion within me, I have learned things from this experience. The first is that I am not yet ready to be physically involved with a man. It has been men who have hurt me, and, in all honesty, I’m still scared of men. Ludo is actually the first man I’ve made friends with at all since getting raped for the last time, and even just friendship with him was a challenge at first. Now I know that I have not reached a place where I can be physical with a man and that is good for me to know.
Through talking with my husband and processing through all that has come about, I have learned more about recovery and trauma. No matter how recovered we may thing we are, there is always the chance that something will stir up old memories and bring all of that rushing back. As has been said by many before, recovery is not a straight line but rather full of peaks and valleys through which we must travel. There will be times our trauma has little hold over us and we feel we are far along the road to recovery. Yet, there will also be times when our trauma grabs hold of us and drags us down into old memories and old pain. We may have to spend some time in these valleys, unable to simply escape and continue on with our lives. We have to sit with our trauma and feel the pain. We must experience it and process it before we can pick ourselves back up and start moving forward again.
Most of all, I am starting to accept that it’s ok not be ok sometimes. What I’ve been through was awful and I can’t expect to just go forward without ever having to face it again. It’s ok if I get stuck in the pain and fear of my experiences. It’s also ok to take time when I’m stuck in order to care for myself, whatever that may mean. For me, it’s talking with my husband and cuddling up with him. It’s finding safety in a man who has never hurt me and has been there for me through it all. It’s taking a little time off work to let myself cry as much as I need to. It’s watching a TV show I love to distract myself for a little while. It’s playing Pokemon or silly phone games to occupy my mind for a time so I can relax. For you, it may be entirely different what you need to do to take care of yourself, and that’s ok. It’s important that we take the time to care for ourselves, whatever that may mean.
Trauma is a nasty beast always lurking in the shadows. We may forget it is there for a time until the day it rears up and grabs us within its claws. But no matter how big and frightening the monster may be, we have the tools to win. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but once we have gathered the strength, we will break free from its clutches and be able to walk forward once more. The beast will still lurk in darkness, waiting to take hold again, but we will always overcome. We who have lived through trauma and survived are so strong. Trauma may be a beast, but we are our own knights in shining armor here to slay the beast.